Guest Post, Barbara Crooker: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

Barbara Crooker

  1. 1.  A poem is a journey, not a destination. If you think you can see where your poem is going, start there. Don’t be in a rush to finish the poem. The world isn’t starving for want of poems. The world is starving for want of good poems.
  2. Write through the body; use your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. Think of the image as the driving engine of the poem.
  3. Don’t be afraid to engage the heart: “If you don’t risk sentimentality, you’re not in the ballpark.” (Richard Hugo) Dive deeper into the wreck.
  4. Banish the internal editor, the one that says, “This isn’t any good. This has been done before. This is boring.” Keep your pen moving; let that pony run. Don’t impose your will on the poem; the poem knows what it wants to become. Be open to everything that comes your way.
  5. Think of the line length as a unit of breath. Read out loud when you’re revising. Find your best line rhythmically, and try and cast the other lines in a similar rhythm. Experiment with regular meter. Try syllabics.
  6. If you’re using rhyme, mix it up with off-rhymes, near rhymes, slant rhymes. Don’t invert sentence structure just to get a rhyme in, and avoid “poetic” phrasing. (Avoid the word “poetic!”)  Fall in love with sounds. And the sound of sounds.
  7. Go for concrete Anglo-Saxon words rather than the fancier Latinate ones.
  8. Try using enjambment; break expectations.
  9.  “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” (Stephen King) and I’d add adjectives to that advice. Nouns and verbs are your power words.
  10.  Always be open to revision. “Revision is not just cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.” (William Matthews) Something to try: cut the first three and last three lines of a draft. Think about how you throw out the eggshells in order to make an omelet. Remember less is more. Less is always more.
  11. Try changing the tense of the poem. Try changing the pronoun of the speaker. Notice the different effect you get between “I said / you said / she said / the woman said.”
  12. “Don’t ask yourself if the poem pleases you. Ask instead, “Have I done everything this poem requires of me?” (William Dickey)
  13. The poem on the page will never measure up to the poem in your head. Learn to live with this.
Barbara Crooker

18 thoughts on “Guest Post, Barbara Crooker: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

  • March 2, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    This is some really great advice! I’m practiced at leaving out adverbs, but adjectives sound like a challenge! I’ll have to go through these tips the next time I’m writing.

  • March 2, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Every poet should read this. Such great advice! I particularly like how she says to “write through the body.” I think this is creative writing advice that should be instilled in young writers.

  • March 2, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    It is interesting to think of the poem as its own entity. I generally look at my own work as creations, but this is a great alternative perspective!

  • March 3, 2014 at 1:31 am

    This is some great advice, and not all of it applies only to poems. Especially the last point, learning to appreciate what you have created even if it wasn’t the original idea is a great way to motivate yourself.

  • March 3, 2014 at 10:45 am

    I agree that this advice works for writing in general! Now if I could only keep my mind from hiring new editors every time that I fire one. Very informative and succinctly written article.

  • March 4, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Yes! What a lovely, concise way to say all of the things I try to instill in my students over many months. I think I’ll make them read this. 🙂

  • March 4, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Good advice! I recognized William Dickey’s words before I got to the attribution. Such a lovely man.

  • March 23, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Poetry has never been my strongest skill so I stay away from it, but thanks to these hints I think I’ll give writing poems another chance. Thank you for the excellent tips!

  • March 24, 2014 at 1:22 am

    Poetry has always been a problem area for me. Truly, all the rules of prose, rhyme, meter, alliteration, couplets, etc seemed overwhelming, even before you add words with meaning. These tips will be beneficial in forgetting all of these rules at first and, like you said, just “let that pony run.” Think of revisions later. Thank you for posting! Maybe I can try to have fun with poetry soon.

  • March 24, 2014 at 8:56 am

    I think the conversation on sentimentality in poetry is such an interesting one. When I write poems, I try really hard to not sound sentimental, but sometimes I wonder what would happen if I just abandoned those worries.

  • March 24, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Fantastic advice! I love the idea of writing through the body and the senses, and for me, that’s difficult to do without relying on adjectives. Something new to try! Also, it’s always difficult to get rid of that inner editor, but as soon as I begin to ignore her, I always notice that my poetry flows better and is easier to connect to. Thanks so much! I want to print this list and pin it up above my bed so I can see it when I write!

  • March 24, 2014 at 9:23 am

    Great advice! I don’t write poetry, but I think almost all of this could apply to fiction. Like others said, cutting adverbs and adjectives is the hardest part. But you are right, nouns and verbs are the essence of good writing and everything else tends to just muddy it if used excessively.

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